Old school muscle: The Dumbbell Pullover

The dumbbell pullover – where do we start with this one?

1911 sounds like a good place. This was the year that pullovers were first introduced into the world by a bloke called Alan Calvert – a bit of a fitness buff at the time.

Shortly after their introduction, the dumbbell pullover took the fitness world by storm. It was used as the main upper body movement in many fitness programs of the time.

man performing dumbbell pullover

Have you ever heard of the infamous ‘squats and milk‘ workout routine? This would have lifters drink a gallon of milk every single day whilst performing 20 rep ‘breathing’ squats in their workouts (not at the same time).

Well, the dumbbell pullover was actually the other main movement that has since been taken out of the name – although it does still feature in the program itself.

This is because the pullover was so highly regarded as a full upper body movement that works in perfect unison with the squat. That’s some pedigree for an obscure exercise that has been cast aside by the gym rats of new isn’t it?


The Dumbbell Pullover

We’ve talked about the history of the lift but let’s get into the nitty gritty – the mechanics. Knowing about the mechanics behind the lift is key to understanding how to target certain areas and why different ways are better for different situations.

The pullover allows for the chest to placed in an optimal position and the stretch that you get from it affects the muscles in the same way that flyes do but with the added bonus of being able to load heavier weight for more reps.

At the bottom of the move, the stretch places a huge emphasis on the lats too, although once you lift the dumbbell past your head, this effect is lessened to some degree. It does still offer huge benefits for building a back like a barn door though as we will discuss a bit further down.

The great debate

There is a debate that rages amongst the dumbbell pullover community. Well it’s less of a community and more just a few fellas arguing online about muscle activation.

But anyway…

Is it a chest or a lat movement? Well, it’s both. It just depends how you perform it. With that in mind, let’s break down how best to perform a dumbbell pullover for each.

Starting with the chest – this is a bit easier as the pullover does lend itself more towards chest activation. Having the dumbbell behind/above the body and bringing it to the front of the body is naturally a chest-dominant move. This is why so many old-school bodybuilders such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Reg Park credit the dumbbell pullover for their amazing chest development.

All you have to do is really squeeze the pecs throughout the full movement as this is one of those exercises that actually requires that mind muscle connection. I hate saying that but it’s true. This will help to really empty the tank and isolate your pecs nicely.

Now for the lats. This is a little bit tougher but it’s not rocket science – you can still do it easily enough.

I’ll be honest with you, when I perform pullovers, I actually feel it more in my lats. This could be because I tend to hold the stretch at the bottom of the movement for about 2 seconds. As this is where the lats are most dominant, it could mean that I am getting a stronger mind muscle connection there. God I hate saying that so much.

All you have to do to really feel this in the lats is to get that stretch. Hold the bottom position for 2-3 seconds and focus on the contraction in your lats. Then, try to pull with your elbows like you would for rows – this allows for a clear focus on the back and will help burn the lats out nicely.

The Benefits

The dumbbell pullover comes with so many benefits. It can be used at the begining or end of a workout, it can be a chest or a back exercise, it can be done low reps or high reps – it’s such a multi-faceted move.

Anyway, I’ve listed a few of these unique benefits below to whet your appetite.

The upper body squat

The dip is often touted as the upper body squat and with good reason – it basically is. However, I’d argue that the dumbbell pullover may just pip it to the post.

Just like squats working the lower body, pullovers work every last bit of the upper body. They work the chest, the back, the shoulders and to some degree – even the arms.

There’s a reason that this exercise was held in such high regard by thousands of bodybuilders from the golden era. The only reason it has fallen out of fashion is because so many people are simply afraid of hard work and are lacking the mobility to perform it due to their sedentary lifestyles.

Basically, you should build your mobility up and throw the dumbbell pullover into your routine, because otherwise, you’re missing out on some of the best upper body development you can possibly achieve.

The chest angle

This is a biggie.

With standard flyes, it’s quite hard to go heavy. In fact, I’d wager that it’s virtually impossible to go heavy. This is where the dumbbell pullover excels.

Obviously you don’t have to go heavy and it is more about getting a great stretch, but pullovers really allow you to load the stretch on your pecs so much more than flyes.

It is quite a unique stimulus for the chest as it is so used to pressing heavy loads usually as well as sometimes being placed under some stretch but never very heavy.

By adding this volume to your chest at such an alien angle, the pecs are forced to hypertrophy – which is always a good thing.

dumbbells on a rack

The lat angle

Weirdly, the dumbbell pullover is actually the only way to isolate your lats. It takes out a lot of the assistance work of all the other back muscles, forearms and even the biceps.

This is what makes it such a great pre-exhaustion exercise as it allows you to get the direct work in before doing heavier compound lifts where your other back muscles and biceps will share the load – taking emphasis off the lats.

As for rib cage expansion…

The big selling point for dumbbell pullovers back in the day was that they expanded the rib cage. So, is this actually true?

No.

Obviously not you idiot. There’s no way to grow bone.

That was quite harsh wasn’t it? I shouldn’t have snapped on you like that – it won’t happen again I promise.

Anyway, like I say, dumbbell pullovers are no good for expanding the rib cage – nor is any exercise ever. However, they are fantastic for increasing all of the musculature around the ribs, which is what gives that look to the physiques of those who use them religiously.

So the answer really should be – no, they don’t expand the rib cage per se but they do cause hypertrophy in all of the areas surrounding the rib cage. So I guess the old timers were kind of right.

How to do it

It’s a very simple move – when done correctly.

Lie down on a bench like you would for a bench press. Some people advocate lying across the bench but I think that’s a sub-par way of doing it. If you do want to do it that way obviously that’s okay but your hips may be robbing you of optimal muscle activation.

Once you’re lying down, bring a dumbbell up above your head with straight arms. Your palms should be facing up supporting the dumbbell and you should have a decent grip. Then you want to lower the dumbbell as far down as you can behind your head whilst keeping your arms as straight as possible (some bend is okay).

Once you’re at the bottom position, hold the stretch for a second or two – this is what will really give the lats a great workout. Then pull back up to the starting position, arms straight. The second portion will start as lat dominant and progress to chest dominant, meaning you’ll get a killer pump in your full upper body.

If that explanation hasn’t got through to you, just take a quick look at the video below.

Warnings

A lot of people hear ‘dumbbell pullover’ and say ‘what’s that?’ – the rest of the people that hear it will reply ‘nah mate, that’ll scupper your shoulders, I’m not doing it’.

Well they’re wrong – but sort of right. If you try pullovers without having adequate shoulder mobility then you’re asking for problems – as is the same with any other exercise.

All this means is that you have to test how well your shoulders can cope with the stress of being stretched. A simple test is to do a set of overhead press, rest, and then do a set of pullups.

If you can do a set of each with complete range of motion (and I mean complete – no cheating), then you have adequate shoulder mobility and should be able to perform the dumbbell pullover with ease.

If you can’t, then you should look at some shoulder mobility routines online and try again in a month or so. After a few goes, if you just can’t perform the exercise without discomfort then unfortunately, it may just not be for you.

How to implement pullovers correctly

There’s more than one way to skin a cat. The dumbbell pullover can be slotted perfectly into any routine but I’m going to give you three examples.

I do full body workouts three times per week – if you do this too, I’d recommend throwing them in at the end of each workout supersetted with dead hangs to get the ultimate stretch.

You can also use them as a pre-exhaustion exercise – I find this works particularly well before doing pullups as it really helps with lat activation.

But for those of you who split your workouts into, pushes, pulls, uppers, lowers and whatever else, here’s a few suggestions:

Push workout

Bench press – 3 x 5

Overhead press – 3 x 8

Dips – 3 x 10

Skullcrushers – 3 x 10

Dumbbell pullover – 3 x 15

Pull workout

Deadlift – 3 x 5

Dumbbell pullover – 3 x 15

Pullups – 3 x 8

Barbell rows – 3 x 10

Barbell curl – 3 x 10

Upper body workout

Bench press – 3 x 8

Pullups – 3 x 8

Dumbbell pullover – 2 x 15

Dips – 3 x 10

Barbell rows – 3 x 10

Dumbbell pullover – 2 x 15


The dumbbell pullover is easily one of the greatest upper body builders ever and should be treated as such by far more people than it is currently.

Throw these into your workouts once or twice a week and watch your chest and lats respond in an unbelievable manner. You’ll thank yourself and more importantly – me, in the long run.

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